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George Hurrell: Stars in his eyes

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Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:22 pm

Think of a movie-star portrait from Hollywood’s Golden Era—Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Taylor, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer. If it was glossy, sexy, and captivating, it probably was made by George Hurrell, the supreme creator of the Hollywood glamour portrait. In those days, his work trumpeted the latest movie. Now his work is collected as fine art, fetching high prices in galleries and at auctions. There’s a story behind this art, and a new book tells it. On November 5, 2013, Running Press publishes George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits, 1925-1992.

This is the second book that Mark A. Vieira has written about Hurrell, but the first to deliver a full-scale biography of this trailblazing photographer. Vieira’s reader-friendly prose makes Hurrell’s technique comprehensible to the lay person, and he includes generous helpings of Hollywood lore, from Ramon Novarro and Rosalind Russell to Diana Ross and Joan Collins. Sharon Stone has written the foreword, and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts is mounting an exhibition in conjunction with George Hurrell’s Hollywood.

Fans of classic Hollywood will be delighted by the book’s size (10x12) and by the number of beautifully reproduced Hurrell photos (420). Most of them are from the noted collector Ben S. Carbonetto. But this is more than a collection of Hurrell images. It’s a frank biography, with revelations about the artist’s personal life and art world dealings. Some of these come from Vieira’s interviews with Hurrell intimates such as film director Paul Morrissey. Some of them come from Vieira’s 1970s diary entries. None of them have been published.

When I met George Hurrell in 1970, he was no longer shooting glamour portraits. He was working as a Unit Stills Photographer at Twentieth Century-Fox, and as a paparazzo who could be found standing outside restaurants where he had once eaten, hoping for a salable shot. He was sixty-six. While working on the film Myra Breckinridge, Hurrell met John Kobal, a BBC journalist who’d been assigned to interview Raquel Welch. Kobal was not terribly interested in Welch. He was more interested in the work Hurrell had done thirty years earlier. Kobal was a collector of Hollywood stills. This intrigued Hurrell. Why would anyone collect old "glossies?"

Kobal invited Hurrell to the Hollywood Hills home where he was staying, and I served as technical interpreter. Kobal wanted to know about Hurrell’s fabulous technique but lacked a working knowledge of photography. When Kobal hit a snag, I’d jump in and explain. I remember Hurrell saying that he no longer shot portraits with an 8x10 view camera. He wasn’t crazy about shooting with a Nikon F2, but it got the job done. John wanted to know if the smaller camera could glamorize a star as well as the big camera Hurrell used earlier. I had to say no, because a 35mm negative is too small to be retouched.

I enjoyed watching the esteemed Hollywood artist and the enthused European writer. It was a propitious meeting. From it came an article in British Vogue—and a partnership. Hurrell helped Kobal push Hollywood photography into art galleries. And Kobal led Hurrell to a second career.

A few years after I met Hurrell, Vieira helped him with his first book, "The Hurrell Style." This was also a fruitful collaboration, and, while Vieira never formally worked for Hurrell as a photo assistant, he did become an expert on Hurrell technique, printing Hurrell negatives and applying that technique to his own portrait work. As might be expected, Vieira got to know Hurrell as a person, and this provides the book with some of its most insightful and readable passages. Hurrell was subject to violent moods, some of which Vieira witnessed. Hurrell also made choices that can only be described as art fraud. Vieira presents proof of this—for the first time in print. But he also shows proof of Hurrell’s genius.

George Hurrell’s Hollywood gives us a look at Hurrell photographs that were "killed;" i.e., rejected by the star or the studio publicity department. Some poses were killed because they revealed too much of an actress’s body. Others were killed because the subject’s expression wasn’t quite "there." Others were killed because Hurrell had shot too many exposures for the publicists to use.

Hurrell preferred to process his own film. He did not allow the studio laboratory to do it. He sent the approved negatives to the studio to be retouched and printed for publication—and he retained possession of the killed negatives. A number of these "kills" stayed in Hurrell’s estate until a few years ago, when their new owners, Michael H. Epstein and Scott E. Schwimer, allowed Vieira to retouch and print them. Their inclusion is evidence that Hurrell was a first-rate artist, responsible to a great degree for the continued fame and importance of the Hollywood glamour portrait.